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COC Chancellor’s Legal Fee Reimbursement Questioned

| News | April 25, 2019

Around June 22, 2016, College of the Canyons Chancellor Dianne Van Hook won a restraining order against two people, which required attorney fees, court costs and the like.

According to documents in the matter Van Hook v. Petzold, attorney fees came to $15,099.05, which included a $1,638 discount.

On March 1, 2017, Van Hook wrote a personal check to the law firm Poole & Shaffery for $15,099. In June, the board of trustees approved a purchase order for Van Hook’s reimbursement.

However, two board members claim they don’t recall approving it and expressed concern that it wasn’t clear what they were approving. Nor are they completely sure Van Hook was entitled to the reimbursement.

“I don’t believe I knew what this was for,” Edel Alonso said. “I don’t remember voting for an item to reimburse Dianne Van Hook.”

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And from Joan MacGregor: “This is a unique case. As far as I’m aware, it’s not happened before, since I’ve sat on the board, where she has taken reimbursement for a legal expense. It normally goes to the law firm.”

Documents the Gazette obtained include Poole & Shaffery’s invoice to Van Hook dated July 19, 2016 that does not specify what the $15,099.05 was for; Van Hook’s personal check to the firm and a purchase order dated June 7, 2017 for $15,099 for “reimbursement of unanticipated legal expenses in accordance with normal reimbursement procedures.”

There’s also a check voucher, a direct payment voucher signed by Van Hook dated March 9, 2017 and then-board president Steve Zimmer dated June 2, 2017, and a list of 39 purchase orders between May 22 and June 18, 2017, for the board to approve. Van Hook is listed as the vendor, the activity is “general institutional support” and the category is “approved expenditures.”

Zimmer, without asking what the Gazette was calling about, referred questions to board president Michael Berger, who texted to say he had a client in the lobby. Later, he didn’t respond to calls or texts. Nor did board member Michele Jenkins respond to calls.

School spokesperson Eric Harnish emailed to say that because Van Hook was a victim in her role as chancellor this allowed her reimbursement. “She reviewed the expenditure with the Board President. He approved submitting that expenditure for reimbursement by the District.  The item was processed for reimbursement by Business Services per the District’s established procedures, and was unanimously approved by the Board,” Harnish wrote.

MacGregor said when the board receives purchase orders, the specifics are not usually stated. The board also regularly approves reimbursements to Van Hook, the law firms the college can use and legal fees. Poole & Shaffery is on the approved list, she said, but “we don’t use them a lot.”

From time to time, MacGregor said, she or Alonso will ask to discuss a specific expense and vote on it separately. Neither board member recalled asking to have this one separated.

Alonso said Berger, Jenkins and Zimmer often express disdain when she wants a specific expense discussed, accusing her of “getting into the weeds” and unnecessarily lengthening the meeting. Her response is, “I need to understand what I’m voting on. When I ask, I’m given an answer that is not always a satisfactory one.”

MacGregor said she doesn’t feel “I made a mistake” in approving it, but she wants more information. “I have put in a request to the Chancellor’s office, but that’s just gone in, so I don’t expect an answer yet,” she said.

Nor do they understand why Van Hook fronted the money. MacGregor said that when the board discussed Van Hook getting a restraining order, she assumed the district would pay for it.

“It’s rare for her to put that money out,” MacGregor said.

The other issue is whether Van Hook should have been paid back in the first place. In her contract dated Feb. 11, 2015, it clearly states Van Hook is not responsible to pay to defend herself when she is sued. It does not clearly state she is entitled to the same courtesy if she initiates legal action; nor does it expressly say she isn’t.

It is this vagueness that troubles Alonso and MacGregor.

“That is not clear to me,” Alonso said.

“We didn’t have a board discussion authorizing it,” MacGregor said. “I do feel there should be full transparency to the board.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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